Nerdfighters

I want to start this off with the words of Stephen Fry. Simply because he's a badass.


"For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious. Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way.


They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”.


Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches, etc.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?


There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it.


They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.


The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.


He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’.


This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind. Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup.


I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There is no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all."


-Stephen Fry


I am a big fan of Stephen, as I know many of you are, and this is a wonderful exert from one of his PODgrams. I bolded the parts I felt were most relevant to the point of the discussion I am proposing, which is: how do you feel about the dreaded Grammar Nazi?


I personally see little point at all in being a "Grammar Nazi", or "Spelling Nazi", or "Punctuation Nazi". Much like Mr. Fry, I feel it is simply a way for an individual to feel superior and, well, cleverer than someone who makes a common grammar mistake, or uses slang (especially in a casual situation, i.e. an internet chatroom, DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED, GUYS). Which, of course, they very seldom actually are. 


It annoys me that people hold the title "Grammar Nazi" with the utmost pride, as if correcting people makes them special somehow. As if going into a chatroom of casual conversation and using that stupid little asterisk over and over again somehow makes them smarter than the person they are so fervently asterisking.


That's all I'm going to say on the subject, as Stephen speaks much more eloquently than I.


How do you feel about this, Nerdfighteria?


(P.S. Hi, guys! I suppose I'm "back". Good to see you all again.)

Tags: fry, grammar, language, nazis, stephen

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Replies to This Discussion

I absolutely agree. Making up new words is fun. Playing around with words is fun.
Actually the comma is properly placed.
I agree with Fry that there seems to be much less appreciation today for the real beauty of words.
How many books hit the bestseller list and could even be remotely compared to Oscar Wilde, Virginia Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Shakespeare in terms of 'sound-sex'?
How many songs become popular not because of their good beat but because their words taste just gorgeous on the lips?

I'm not sure any of that is related to the "Grammar Nazi" phenomenon. People correct others because it's really the only ad hominem argument available in the virtual world. It's a way to quickly discredit someone's words without actually tackling their argument. It's almost always an immature and boring hit.

However, I do think there are some cases when it's valid. I've read professional, published articles online that contain so many mistakes that I didn't feel I could take the content of the article seriously. There may not be a direct link between correct grammar and truth or honesty, but poor grammar (as Fry stated) gives the impression of someone who is haphazard rather than methodical, casual rather than professional, and generally indifferent to their subject. Not someone I'd feel compelled to listen to.
Personally, as an English major (albeit a rather new one), I have a tendency to correct my teachers' grammar and spelling on handouts and such, but most of the time they never see it. In my opinion, there's a big difference between correcting someone's grammar/spelling when they make the same mistake over and over again and jumping like an attack dog whenever someone happens to misuse a comma (or semicolon; that's my big one). I think it's okay to correct someone in your mind but when you are constantly interrupting someone while they're talking or going back onto every blog post and pointing out the errors, that's just rude.
Generally speaking, I don't care. I'll happily skim over unintentional errors (especially on a casual basis such as this). However, It gets to me when people try and re-write English such as spelling 'like' 'lyk' and when people have clearly made no effort in a more important setting.
I truly despise "Grammar Naziism" for several reasons.
1. Language is an evolving creature. What once was not a word suddenly becomes one due to the demands of the public. Saying something "is not a word" may be true, but it is not a valid reason to put someone down. The point of language is not to be precise but to be functional. If a non-word is used in such a way that it serves purpose it becomes a word. The words in the dictionary did not just suddenly appear, they came from people stringing arbitrary sounds to form functional descriptions. This is the beauty of language. Lewis Carroll, for example, is renowned for his ability to make understandable poems from nonsensical words. Language evolves due to necessity. If there is no word to describe what needs to be said, a new word is born.

2. The rules of language evolve as well. "Proper" punctuation/spelling etc changes from style to style. Where someone says a comma is not necessary another set of rules says it is. Where in some words i before e applies in others it does not. English is a bastard child of multiple languages that all follow their own rules. Yes, they serve an important function in making what people write/say understandable they are not an end-all-be-all guide to writing. If what someone writes is understandable, then it does not matter.

3. It is inconsiderate to judge people by how they speak or write. I have been able to read and write at what is considered "college level" since I was tested in first grade. However, English is by far my worst subject. I am very logically minded and enjoy things like math because they follow a specific set of rules. English is unbelievably difficult for me to understand and I struggle with it daily. I find it very hurtful when people criticize my writing when they know nothing of me and it discourages me from trying to write. I am always up for constructive criticism, that is not what I am addressing. I am talking about those who put others down because it makes them feel superior, and I have to say that just adds to world suck.

I leave off with some Carroll, as his works are, to me, the most beautiful in the language:
"'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."

PS
I say words all the time just because I enjoy the way the sound.
For example: fork, garage, spoon, door... simple words, but so fun to say!
I love the jabberwock and you are so absolutely right.
Oh, I forgot to mention:
Being a Grammar Nazi is useless and merely points out the foolishness of the corrector. As Aesop would say "'I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray.'"

Why is it foolish?
No matter how many rules you memorize and try to enforce you are forgetting the highest rule of language:
Language is context dependent.

An individual's choice of writing style and execution is their own. The writer can make up words, place punctuation wherever they please and even create their own set of rules for language. They are still correct under the highest rule of language.
I'm perfectly comfortable with other peoples grammar and spelling mistakes so long as they are unintentional. I am naturally a very bad speller (as I'm sure you can see) but I try very hard to not be so. I appreciate people correcting me and giving me little tricks to remember. My problem arises with what I refer to as "emo kid slang" (since most of the people I know that use it are emo kids). It is mostly characterized by a lot of "I wuvs u" and the like, When used excessily I have a very difficult time finding out what in the hell these people are trying to say.If you ask them to use real english most will just get mad. I don't know how to deal with this and as a result don't talk to people who speak this way often and when I do never have a truelly engaging conversation.
As far as the occasional spelling mistake goes, I'm very forgiving. I may or may not correct the person. However, if someone constantly posts absolute garbage to facebook, I will remove them from my friends. I get frustrated when people spell like my seven year old brother all the time. I love words and how they're used, but I do make mistakes myself. More than 70% of the time, I misspell "necessary". I think it's better to ignore it when someone can't use the language they depend on to do everything. Just stop paying attention to them. Correct people every now and again. It's when you get all obsessive and in their face that you become an evil Grammar Nazi.
I <3 pegleg meg!
Really, I think the more important issue is whether and how we teach grammar. For a large part of the history of formal English grammar, instruction was pretty lousy. Why? Because we had shitty rules that some classicists had nicked from Latin, which - though it has supplied English with lots of really fancy-pants vocabulary - isn't as structurally important as... a lot of other thingsIdon'trememberthatclassverywellanymore. Anyway, now we have an entire tradition of grammatical tutelage that's kinda bogus and doesn't do an adequate job with a large part of the language, but no one wants to change because if those aren't the rules, then what are?

Actually, there ARE rules! And I'm sure that most learners of English as a foreign language are absolutely flummoxed at how native speakers are able to keep them so well with about 1% of the formal language education. Because it's totally true that language is context dependent, but that doesn't mean that - in most cases - you get to choose which context you're a part of, and practically never do you get to claim independence from any context whatsoever (unless you're really interested in talking to yourself). Once a lot of people start speaking differently, the rules start to change - sometimes very slowly and sometimes in a matter a few generations - but there are always times when a native speaker can say "No, hey, you said that incorrectly."

But since contexts aren't as universal as state or federal education guidelines would like them to be, we end up telling lots of people that their way of speaking is wrong or subnormal, even though they're following arguably very legitimate rules. (Fun fact: what people used to call ebonics, or the dialect that a lot of black people in America speak, has actually been proven to be more grammatically consistent than "standard" English. Also, it shows a surprising level of overall consistency considering it's spoken by pockets of such geographically disparate people. Lots of sociological implications follow.) SO, do we allow grammatical instruction to follow local patterns, or do we try and teach one standard, or do we teach them at the same time? With equal emphasis?

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